Not Being Yourself
Chris Rock has built his stand-up career on exposing America’s strained race relations, skewering everything from affirmative action to poverty to the meaning of the term “American.” Everybody Hates Chris, Rock’s semi-autobiographical take on growing up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, indicates the roots of both his class and race awareness.
The segments of the sitcom revolving around Chris’(Tyler James Williams) home life, much like Roseanne or Malcolm in the Middle, address the nuances of the working class family. In “Everybody Hates Food Stamps,” Rochelle (Tichina Arnold) fantasizes about loading her cart with mountains of name brand groceries after Julius (Terry Crews) obtains $200 worth of food stamps, while the plot of “Everybody Hates the Laundromat” considers the tribulations inherent in a Saturday afternoon spent in a busy urban laundromat.
But when the show turns to Chris’ all-white Corleone Junior High School, the audience is offered a more specific look into Rock’s sharp understanding of America’s race politics. Therefore it is fitting that “Everybody Hates Corleone,” the 13 April episode marking Chris Rock’s directorial debut, centers on this primal scene of his alter-ego’s adolescence and the possible source of much his own comedic material.
As we learned in the series pilot (“Everybody Hates the Pilot”), Chris must endure a two-hour bus trip everyday to Brooklyn Beach so that he can receive, “not a Harvard-type education, just a not-sticking-up-a-liquor-store-type education.” In other words, Corleone is no bastion of academia, but it is better than being stabbed, which, as Rochelle mentions in this week’s episode, is what recently happened to a girl attending the local Marla Gibbs High School. (As the all-black junior high in Chris’ neighborhood is called Lamont Sanford Junior High School, it’s clear that popular cultural references inform everything in the series, from the structure of Chris’ daydreams to the names of his schools, suggesting how such imagery shaped a generation’s worldview.)
Despite his parents’ firm belief that he will be “safer” in the all-white school, Chris’ status as the only black student opens him up to a daily barrage of physical and, more significantly, mental, abuses. “Everybody Hates Corleone” opens with a scene explaining exactly why Chris believes he’s only getting an “education in misery.” In one vignette, he stands in front of his white classmates. Written on the chalkboard next to him is: “Unga-bunga-bunga-inga-bunga-binga-gunga-unga.” On the other side is a world map. The class is learning about Africa and Chris is as much a teaching tool as the map beside him. His teacher sincerely asks, “Chris, what tribe are you from?” Feeling like a specimen, Chris here illustrates what it’s like to endure the public schools’ version of political correctness, as well as his own youthful self-consciousness.
While the racism of Chris’ teachers is often draped in good intentions, his classmates are depicted as virulent bigots, something for which the show has been criticized (see Linda Stasi’s review in the New York Post). After a pretty classmate dupes Chris into believing that they have a date playing Ms. PacMan at a neighborhood arcade, Joey Caruso (Travis Flory), his arch-nemesis, appears from around a corner, shouting, “Surprise Donkey Kong!” and “Silly Negro!” Chris is then pelted with white paint. Such encounters emphasize the disturbing space Chris is forced to occupy—he is separated from other black teens and bitterly rejected by all but one of the white teens with whom he must associate on a daily basis.
While it’s not the series’ strongest episode, “Everybody Hates Corleone” illuminates Chris’ awkward coming-of-age in this adolescent hinterland. When his best (and only) friend, Greg (Vincent Martella), asks him, “So you think it’s going to be different at the other school?” Chris smiles dreamily and we see his fantasy of what it might be like to attend an all-black junior high. Unsure of what other black kids might be doing, the image he settles on is culled from television: Soul Train. Chris successfully answers the question, “This cool cat sailed around the world in the Nina, Pinta, and the Santa Maria. I will give you a year’s supply of Afro Sheen if you can unscramble his name!”, at which point the teacher (Tim Meadows) gestures for him to hit the dance floor, which he does, dressed in appropriate head-to-toe polyester. For Chris, any school that isn’t Corleone must be a perfect (television-derived) dream world, where he fits right in and everyone dances to the same tune.
Thus, although Chris endures a decidedly uncommon junior high experience, he is, nevertheless, the consummate 13-year-old, which explains why Everybody Hates Chris is often compared with that other adolescent nostalgia-fest, The Wonder Years. While I’m pretty sure Kevin Arnold was never beat up for being white, the comparison is accurate: both boys are outcasts, dreamers and popular culture junkies, struggling though that difficult age when the only time you feel comfortable is when you are not being yourself.
Like any great Chris Rock routine, the best bits from Everybody Hates Chris clarify the difficulties inherent in growing up black in a country defined primarily by white interests, while simultaneously reminding the audience of those mundane life experiences, whether sibling rivalry or fear of the class bully, that might be called universal.